Friday, April 10, 2015

60 Years Ago: Opening Day 1955—Mr. Cub, Three and Out, and the Toothpick

On opening day sixty years agoMonday, April 11, 1955the Chicago Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds, 7-5, with significant contributions from all three black players on their season-opening roster. It was four days short of nine years that Jackie Robinson became the first acknowledged black player to play in the major leagues since the 19th century, and although there was no going back to segregated whites-only organized baseball, integration was still a work in progress. This is the first of four articles centered on opening day games on the status of integration in major league baseballnine years into the big league career of Jack Roosevelt Robinson. 

Opening Day 1955: Mr. Cub, Three and Out, and the Toothpick

As was a longstanding tradition to honor the Reds as the first official major league franchise back in 1876, the 1955 National League season opened in Cincinnati on April 11. Both teams were relatively late to integratethe Chicago Cubs not doing so until they called up infielders Ernie Banks and Gene Baker in September 1953, the Reds not until opening day in 1954 with infielder Chuck Harmon and outfielder Nino Escalera as bench players. Harmon started in 63 of the 94 games he played without being able to establish himself as a regular, and Escalera hit .159  in 73 games, making only eight starts in the field.

The Reds once again had two blacks on their opening day rosterHarmon and outfielder Bob Thurman. The Puerto Rican-born Escalera failed to make the Big Club and was assigned to Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate in Havana, Cuba. Thurman, soon to turn 38 years old, was a veteran from the Negro Leagues, had played in the New York Yankee and Chicago Cub farm systems, and had been a standout player in Caribbean winter league baseball. Neither Harmon nor Thurman figured to be a regular for the Reds in 1955, and neither was in the starting line-up on opening day. Harmon did get into the game as a pinch runner in the ninth inning of a losing cause. 

Harmon played in 96 games for the Reds in 1955, batting .253 with five home runs and 28 runs batted in, but started in only 60 at third base and left field. He played only 99 more games in the big leagues, his last with the Phillies in 1957in the year Philadelphia became the last National League team to integrate their big league roster. Thurman started in only 27 of the 82 games he appeared and would play for the Reds for three more years, coming off the bench.

As for the visiting Cubs, for the second straight opening day they started Gene Baker at second and Ernie Banks at short. Batting sixth, Banks singled in the second to help set up the Cubs' first run of the season and came around himself to score on a double, and Bakerbatting secondgreeted reliever Joe Nuxhall in the third with a home run to give the Cubs a 4-0 lead. But the star of the game was the third black player on the Cubs' opening day roster, right-hander Toothpick Sam Jones. The Cubs had acquired Jones from the Indians, for whom he had spent the four previous years pitching at the Triple-A level in their minor league system and a total of 16 games in parts of the 1951 and 1952 seasons. 

Cubs' manager Stan Hack brought Sam Jones into the first game of the year in relief of the starting pitcher and ace of the staff, Bob Rush. It was only the fourth inning and Jones was asked to protect a 4-2 lead with runners at the corners and two outs. At the plate stood the Reds' powerful first baseman, Ted Kluszewski, who had led the majors with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs the previous year and who would finish the 1955 season leading the league in hits with 192, of which 47 cleared the fence. Big Klu had homered the previous inning against Rush and now had the chance to give Cincinnati the lead in this at bat, but Jones got the better of him, inducing a ground out to first.

Sam Jones pitched five innings, giving up just one run on two hits to get the win. He left the game with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning, leading 7-4, after surrendering back-to-back walks. Reliever Hal Jeffcoat hit the next batter to force in a run, but got the final out to save the game for Jones. 

Bob Rush may have been the Cubs' nominal ace, but Sam Jones had the most starts (34) and the most wins (14) for the 1955 Cubs. He finished the season with a 14-20 record for a team that ended up sixth with only 72 wins. Jones led the National League in strikeouts with 198 and in strikeouts-per-nine innings for the first of four consecutive years. Alas, control was a problem, witness Jones also leading the league in walks with 185.

Banks, Baker, and Jones were archetypes of the black experience in the first decade of integration in the major leagues. Ernie Banks was, of course, a transcendent starjust beginning his way to a Hall of Fame career as arguably the best National League shortstop since the days of Honus Wagner. After finishing second in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year in 1954, Banks had his breakout season in 1955, blasting 44 home runs, driving in 117 runs, and finishing third in the MVP voting. His excellence assured he could not be denied a starting role in the major leagues. 

Although, like Banks, only in his second season, Gene Baker epitomized the very talented black player who did not make the major leagues until he was approaching 30 years old, deprived of an opportunity to start his major league career any earlier than late September 1953 because of the color of his skin. He was not signed until he was 25 and then played 656 games in the minor leagues before getting his shot in the Big Time, side-by-side with Banks, who was six years younger. There was no question that Baker would have made the big-league grade sooner, especially given that both middle infield positions were a significant weakness for not-very-good Cubs teams since 1950, but the Cubs took a go-slow approach when it came to integrating at Wrigley Field.

Baker was the Cubs' regular second baseman from 1954 through 1956 before being traded to Pittsburgh, where neither he (nor anyone else) was about to take away Bill Mazeroski's job. Injuries wound up derailing his career, which amounted to 630 big league games, 448 with the Cubs. Gene Baker was not an elite player, but he was a capable big leaguer. The three years he was a regular for the Cubs, during which he hit .267, Baker averaged about 2.3 wins above replacementat the bottom range of performance expected of a big league regular. 

Unless they played for the Dodgers, Giants, or Braves, three years for most of the 1950s was about the norm for blacks who were not elite players to be a regular on their team before they were shunted aside. If an important benchmark for the consolidation of integration was whether black players with average major league ability, not just elite players, were given the opportunity to fairly compete and hold on to starting jobs on big league teams, Gene Baker probably didn't get the chance he deserved. 

One who did was Sam Jones, nicknamed "Toothpick" because he liked to chomp on one but who also could have earned the nickname for being tall (6-4) and skinny (192 pounds), although he never pitched for any one team longer than three years. From 1955 to 1960, pitching two years for the Cubs, two for the Cardinals, and two for the Giants, Jones was a regular in their starting rotations, four times starting at least 34 games. Jones had a very respectable career, finishing up with a 102-101 major league record. His best season was in 1959, when his 21-15 record and league-leading 2.83 ERA was instrumental to the Giants competing for the pennant until the last week of the season.

The next article will examine the state of integration in the American League on Opening Day in 1955.

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